Up to the challenge: Packers turn back Cowboys
As a record crowd of 79,704 inside Lambeau Field eagerly awaited a ruling, Aaron Rodgers felt no such anxiety on the Green Bay Packers' sideline.
The veteran quarterback, playing on a bad calf, remained poised and confident about what head official Gene Steratore would find when reviewing the most important play of Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game between the Packers and Dallas Cowboys.
The call in question, Dez Bryant's 31-yard reception on fourth-and-2, had monumental implications. If it was ruled that he bobbled the pass, it meant a change of possession with a little more than 4 minutes remaining. If the call was confirmed, it gave rushing champion DeMarco Murray at least three shots at a ready-made 1-yard touchdown run to retake the lead.
After conferring with officials in New York, Steratore determined the Cowboys receiver didn't maintain possession through the catch. Moments later, the Packers held on for a 26-21 win to advance to the NFC championship game in Seattle.
Minutes felt like hours for defensive players on the field, but not on the Packers' sideline. Running back Eddie Lacy felt the judgment was old news by the time Steratore announced it because of the coolness of his quarterback.
"A-Rod saw it. He knew it. That took most of the suspense out of it," Lacy said. "He walked past and was like, 'It's definitely incomplete.' So that kills it. No suspense."
Before the catch came into question, Rodgers' play was the story. Relegated to mainly quick hitches and check-downs initially, he looked more like his MVP self in the second half. He finished with a 125.4 passer rating off 24-of-35 passing for 316 yards and three touchdowns.
Rodgers didn't scramble for positive yards once because of the strained left calf muscle that held him out of practice for most of the week. However, his efficiency was on point, especially in the second half when he completed 15 of 20 passes for 226 yards and two scores.
The offense rode Lacy (seven carries for 45 yards) on its first scoring drive. Rodgers completed only two passes on the 10-play series, including a 4-yard touchdown to tight end Andrew Quarless in the back of the end zone. He admitted afterward it was a play he normally would have scrambled on.
Things went south from there. A holding call on Brad Jones negated a second three-and-out for the defense. Instead, the Cowboys drove down for an equalizer off a 1-yard touchdown pass from Tony Romo to Tyler Clutts.
The offense temporarily lost Lacy, who exited because of an asthma attack brought on by the 24-degree weather. The Packers managed a drive regardless before center Corey Linsley snapped the ball early on Rodgers, eventually leading to a Dallas fumble recovery. It was Rodgers' first turnover at home this season.
Four plays later, Dallas receiver Terrance Williams turned a quick hitch into a 38-yard touchdown after breaking Tramon Williams' tackle and dodging past Micah Hyde. The 14-7 deficit marked the first time Green Bay had trailed at home since the third quarter in Week 2 against the New York Jets.
"That play hurt us," Hyde said. "That was just bad tackling, bad pursuit. It was an overall bad play, and we can't let that happen."
The momentum stayed in the Cowboys' favor until Packers defensive lineman Datone Jones blocked a Dan Bailey 50-yard field goal attempt with 34 seconds left in the half. With all three of their timeouts, Rodgers lobbed a 31-yard completion to Randall Cobb to set up a Mason Crosby 40-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 14-10.
Outside linebacker Julius Peppers forced Murray into a fumble early in the second half, which was recovered by Jones. The Packers cashed that into a 30-yard field goal. It might have been more if an unnecessary roughness call on right guard T.J. Lang didn't push a third-and-1 opportunity back to third-and-16.
Dallas wasted little time in extending the lead back to 21-13 on a six-play, 80-yard drive, but Green Bay's offense finally came to life when Rodgers hit rookie receiver Davante Adams over the middle on a 46-yard touchdown after beating Dallas defensive backs Sterling Moore and J.J. Wilcox.
The defense registered back-to-back sacks of Romo on the Cowboys' next possession to give Green Bay the ball back. Rodgers went 7-for-7 for 65 yards on that series, threading a 13-yard touchdown to tight end Richard Rodgers to give Green Bay the 26-21 lead after a missed two-point conversion.
"It looked kind of big when I threw it and then it kind of got a little smaller as the ball got a little closer," Rodgers said. "I was able to move to the left slightly, which is actually a little bit easier moving to the left today for whatever reason on the calf, and I kind of saw Richard. He has incredible hands but he did a good job of body-catching that one."
Dallas continued to threaten when Murray uncorked a 30-yard run to start the following series, the longest Green Bay has allowed since Week 8 in New Orleans. However, Mike Neal and Jones split a sack of Romo en route to pushing Dallas to fourth-and-2.
The Cowboys went empty backfield on the play. Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers sent an all-out blitz with no deep safeties, which led to Romo uncorking a deep lob to Bryant near the sideline.
The soon-to-be free agent high-pointed the ball out of cornerback Sam Shields' reach and came down with it. The ball touched the ground, but he appeared to have control at first. It's when he extended for the end zone that he slightly bobbled.
It took guts for Packers coach Mike McCarthy to challenge it, especially after unsuccessfully appealing a Peppers deflected pass in the first half. If the catch stood, Green Bay would have been without any timeouts.
"Some people probably think throwing the red flag is a lot of fun. It's not all it's cut out to be, I can tell you that," said McCarthy, who was 0-for-3 during the regular season. "I had lost the challenge earlier, but based on the time of the game, it was my immediate reaction. But that was such an impactful play, you have to challenge that."
Bryant and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said afterward they believe the receiver caught the ball, but the officials saw things differently. The Packers felt a bit of vindication for a discrepancy in flags. They finished with 10 penalties for 87 yards compared to Dallas' five for 35.
"We felt it wasn't a catch because when he hit the ground, it bobbled a little bit," Hyde said. "It was a crucial call. I think the main thing is we felt like we weren't getting calls all game."
The win sets up a rematch from the regular-season opener between the Packers (13-4) and Seahawks (13-4), who won 36-16 in dominating fashion. Rodgers' injured calf remains a concern, but Green Bay feels it's a different team.
This is the Packers' chance to prove it.
"I think we were pretty raw," veteran cornerback Jarrett Bush said. "We had lots of talent and potential, but I don't think we had tightened down all of our nuts and bolts yet. … No excuse. We dropped that game, but this one is where you have your redemption. You're playing your best football. This is our chance.
"It's our next opportunity to go out and prove to the world we can be Super Bowl champs once again."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod